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The conqueror and the conquered

The Thrill of Battle
How a gamy salmon was played for one hour and ten minutes
and finally brought to gaff
By Murray Vann
This story was originally published in the July 1920 edition of Field and Stream.

He is a poor fisherman who does not pride himself upon the skill and strategy rather than upon the avoirdupois of his many catches. To be sure the overflowing creel is a very good recommendation and its opposite a painful and awkward embarrassment. Nevertheless, the stories we hear from regular fellows are those of the ready hand, the lightning-like manoeuvres and it may be, a bit of camouflage. I have quite forgotten the number and weight of my best catch, but so long as I am able to retain the benefits of memory, I shall thrill again and again as I relate the story of my hour and ten minutes’ battle royal with my one and only salmon. (Regular fellows will please pardon the inference that I am of them and read further to see if I really have the password!)

It was near the mouth of the Salmon River which empties itself into Chedabucto Bay not far from Guysboro, Nova Scotia. The requirements of my parish work necessitated the keeping of a horse. My buggy always contained one or the other of two congenial companions, my fishing gear or my rifle, sometimes both. Unfortunately for my habits of study and consistent work, most of the roads which I traversed either crossed or ran along beside tantalizingly good streams. And I am not so sure that I was less acceptable or useful in the village because of my much foraging. It were better for the world could it have more of the glorious abandonment of the out-of-doors!
But underneath my hat, away down, I had a sort of an idea that someday or other I would walk into the village claiming the added distinction of Conqueror.

I had been at the Salmon Hole twice before that spring but found that the ice from the lakes was still jamming through. On this, my third visit, however, I found only the swollen waters which the weeping snows of the mountains seemed ever to be plentifully replenishing. It was a great black, fast-moving torrent and yet without break or ripple. I stepped to the top of the overhanging boulder and cast off, letting my seventy-five feet of reliable line and my little trout hook with its gob of worms swirl away to the bend. I had the point of advantage as far as sight was concerned, but a sad place of disadvantage should I connect with anything worth lifting. Fifteen feet in the air meant a killing. I could hardly expect to throw a ten- or fifteen-pounder up over my head with my little split-bamboo and from such a stand.

You see I was geared for little stuff and was just taking my daily try to pick up something in passing. But underneath my hat, away down, I had a sort of an idea that someday or other I would walk into the village claiming the added distinction of Conqueror.

Although the section was a sportsman’s paradise, there were few who qualified. It was either some of the boys who lived nearby who yanked them out before they knew what had hit them, or some expert angler with his much tackle lately arrived from Boston or New York and settled down for the summer until, under the Grace of the Holy Saint, Izaak, he should maintain his tinseled reputation. I classed myself among the everyday human “In-Betweens.”

The next time I let my line run down I gave all I had, a reckless procedure had I taken my prospects at all seriously. I could see the little pink roll wobbling and bobbing on top of the water. I turned to look across the fields to see if my horse was standing quietly when I came very near being tipped off the rock and into the swirling waters. Fortunately, I was able to connect with a bit of tough herbage and with eyes a-bulge and nerve a-strain I began to reel in my slack.

I was afraid to tighten on him. I thought of that wee little hook. But then I knew he would toss it out if it didn’t set, so I took a chance and gave him a vigorous jibe. He didn’t respond. I must be caught on bottom. Again I jerked his mouth. I was afraid I was playing a snag.

Zsssttt… The third one took. But my point of advantage was a mighty asset. I could see his direction and gauge his speed readily for I was above him. I had no automatic, however, and was a bit fearful of consequences between the break and the gathering in of my slack as he shot back to bottom right up underneath me again. But that second gave me the sight of a lifetime.
I filled my lungs, kept my line gently taut and gathered myself for a fight.

When he was within six or eight feet of the surface on his long drive across the river, I saw him for the first time. And he looked as big as a–well, certain accuracy will be expected of me that I must respect! And when he broke! Five or six feet into the air and over like an acrobat. And how he hit that line! But it was slack. And I still had him.

I thought it was about time to breathe again. I filled my lungs, kept my line gently taut and gathered myself for a fight. I never was noted for self-control, but I was in for a testing. Remember: Trout hook, me fifteen feet aloft with no chance of getting more on the level, and as ready a set of nerves as any chap who had spent the first twenty-five years of his life in the confines of a classroom. Some battle!

The people of the neighborhood had said to me that the salmon running so early were thin and dull! That they had just worked down from the lakes where they had lain for the winter and were working back and forth into and out of the salt water getting braced up for the sporting life of the summer! I had my doubts about whether this chap was just down. I made up my mind the next minute that he had spent the winter in Mid-Atlantic and that he was well “braced.”

I had gathered myself sufficiently now to venture another jibe or two. He didn’t like it a bit. With a savage dash he was off again in a long lightning sweep for the surface. Out and into the air, the foam flying in the sunlight. I nearly lapsed in the grip of the beauty of it all. But he had gone straight down again away over on the other side. My line was three-quarters out. What would happen should he make the next sweep further downstream. If he ever should hit the limit! But there was a long shallow sandbar down that way, and I invoked the Holy Saint Izaak that he should make that barrier loom large to my uncompromising enemy.

I suppose it had been a poor game from his.

I saw his point of view. We understood one another perfectly. This was to be a battle!

And so the battle went on for an hour and more, with his weakening and my reassuring. No less than twelve times did he flash through his aerial act but the twelfth was a very poor effort indeed. He hardly did more than course in a circle about the surface, nor could he get back below without a great shudder and supreme effort.

I was quite sure now that I could draw him up those awful fifteen feet hand over hand by the line. But would the hook stand that weight? It looked like twenty-five pounds at least. What a shame to lose him now!

But I had not counted his reserve. I had his head lifted from the water a foot and was slowly drawing him out in a vertical line, when with one sweep of his tail, he snapped the line through my bare hands cutting like the thin edge of a razor. Naturally, I dropped it. But I fastened on the rod and stood back. And now I was mad! He had hurt me. It was no longer a game from my standpoint. I suppose it had been a poor game from his. I saw his point of view. We understood one another perfectly. This was to be a battle!

And he did fight for twenty minutes more as though he knew that I was roused too. But when finally I had him drawn up where I could set my fingers into his gills, I ran like a child in abandoned glee and laid him down high and dry, where escape was impossible. I had won, but I took off my old felt hat and stood to do my fallen enemy honor.

I am sure that I drove the little mare most heartlessly as I journeyed home. The salmon tipped the scales at eleven pounds and was of a kind that had he been landed in September might have gone to twenty at least. But I had no inclination to leave him for fattening.
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